Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Remember the Tylenol Scare?

From left to right: O'Dwyer Chief Editor
Kevin mcCauley;Jack O'Dwyer, Publisher;
Greg Hazely, writer and West Coast Bureau
Chief George McQuade pays the NY office
a visit recently.

Guest Editorial by Jack O’Dwyer

The Much-Praised Tylenol Story
Has a Lot of Holes In It

Fortune magazine is the latest victim of the myth,
failing to focus on the real culprit–the capsule.


Fortune magazine, failing to carefully examine the background of the Tylenol recall of 1982 after seven murders via Tylenols, has called Tylenol “the gold standard in crisis control.”

Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke, fearing loss of market share, had rushed back into the market less than two months after the murders with “tamper-resistant” packaging.

Neither J&J nor any company in the industry dared to say “tamper-proof.”

How would you like to have a gas stove or gas tank in your car that were “leak resistant” or a brakes in the car that worked “almost 100% of the time?”

Would you eat canned food labeled “botulism-resistant?”

Burke himself chaired the committee on “tamper-resistant” packaging that rushed this knowingly flawed system back to market on Nov. 11, 1982.

The seals on a poisoned bottle of Tylenols that killed Diane Elsroth, 23, of Peeksville, N.Y., Feb. 7, 1986 appeared not to have been broken.

But the FBI, using “sophisticated” tests, found on Feb. 27 that the seals had been broken.

This was thought to exonerate J&J of any blame. But if it took the FBI three weeks to learn this, what chance did the average consumer have of noticing tampering on a Tylenol bottle or any other bottle?

Also, a murderer could break the seals and offer a spiked Tylenol or other capsule to an unknowing victim who might be a “friend” or relative.

Modern PR breaks down into two categories: J&J/Tylenol and the rest of it. One need only study what happened in this incident to know plenty about how PR works and how media work (or don’t).

For openers, J&J should not have been selling anything in easily opened and doctored capsules.

Burke’s career at J&J was heavily identified with the success of highly-profitable Tylenol.

The capsules were popular because people felt they were easier to swallow and worked faster than tablets. Tylenol tablets, much smaller, were also easy to swallow and worked just as fast.

Burke feared J&J would stop using capsules but others wouldn’t, causing a drop in Tylenol’s market share.

There was no “immediate” recall as described in the Effective PR textbook or “instant” recall as Russell Crowe said in “The Insider” movie.

J&J at first confined the recall to two small lots after two Tylenol deaths took place on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1982. Both J&J and the FDA told people on Thursday not to take any more Tylenol capsules until an investigation was made.

The actual recall (of the few, if any, Tylenol products left on shelves), was made Oct. 6, seven days after Burke learned of the initial murders. Burke had pushed back any decision on what to do until Monday, Oct. 4, when a large staff meeting was scheduled.

Mary Kellerman, 12, and Adam Janus, 27, had died of poisoned Tylenols on the morning of Sept. 29.

Who has ever seen a picture of Kellerman or Janus or his brother Stanley, 25, or Stanley’s wife, Theresa, 19, or any of the other four victims? We haven’t and we’ve been collecting material on this story for 25 years.

When J&J finally agreed to a settlement in May of 1991, none of their names were even mentioned in a Chicago Tribune story.

As far as we can tell, there has been nothing but silence from these families for 25 years.

We never saw a picture of Elsroth, either. Both Newsweek and Time ran full-page stories on the second Tylenol poisoning but no pictures of Elsroth. Newsweek’s March 3, 1986 issue had a large picture of Burke.

Media attention has been focused on possible harm to Tylenol’s market share while minimum ink has been given to the victims. They have almost been “de-humanized.”

A “man” in Oroville, Calif., almost died of a Tylenol poisoning on Oct. 5, 1982, but his name has never been revealed.

J&J did not win a PRSA Silver Anvil in 1983 for its Tylenol recall despite claims to this effect.

J&J entered the recall in the “Emergency PR” category and lost to Hygrade Food Products which was praised for its creativity in handling alleged contamination of hot dogs.

J&J had refused to give the Anvil judges a key ingredient, the PR budget. J&J had also not called a press conference to answer questions in public (it had lots of enemies because of what the Wall Street Journal called its “knuckle-buster lawsuits” vs. competitors).

Only the judges had the power to award Anvils. The Anvil committee then decided, on its own, to give J&J something but it should have been called a “Special Award.”

While J&J ducked a public grilling on the murders in late September and early October, it had three open “teleconferences” in November when it was unveiling its “tamper-resistant” packaging.

J&J (made up of more than 160 different companies) later donated millions in ads and grants to PRSA. Burke, with J&J nearly 30 years, had “never” appeared on TV and “rarely” in print, according to The Practice of PR by Fraser Seitel..

J&J “would not give us the time of day” up until Tylenol, ABC-TV business reporter Karen Ryan said in 1983. Camera crews would show up at J&J h.q. only to be told the meeting was cancelled, she said.

Omnicom’s John Wren (Ad Age’s 2007 “Man of the Year”), has ducked the New York press for the fifth straight year by holding a brief annual meeting in Denver...the Overseas Press Club battles for press rights in dictatorships such as Cuba, Eritrea and Uzbekistan (5/23 NL) but it should also turn its attention to authoritarian giants in the U.S. like Omnicom that have shunned the press for many years and gotten away with it.

The journalist’s life has “never been harder,” Bill Moyers told a media group 5/15/05. Institutions fight back fiercely when subjected to “critical scrutiny,” he said...OPC’s membership fell from 3,326 in 1966 to 600 at present as foreign bureaus closed and media hired nationals...the five big ad agencies, J&J, PRSA and numerous other institutions have super-tight policies in dealing with the press that approach the policies of undemocratic foreign dictatorships...reporters are deemed to be “enemies” because they don’t share the enthusiasm an organization has for itself. They’re not supposed to. As Abraham Lincoln said in1837 (as quoted in the 5/28 New Yorker), the only acceptable form of public discourse is “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” He said that while “passion has helped us, it can do so no more. It will in the future be our enemy”...Mary Beth West, Maryville, Tenn., counselor, spent an hour May 24 on a teleconference pleading with PRSA chapter reps to create advocacy chairs and to think up issues for PRSA’s advocacy program. She told them to stick to generalities when discussing a crisis and avoid naming companies or individuals (who might be PRSA members). Best is to check with national before saying anything, she said...we can suggest a couple of issues. One is support the right of the press to cover institutions and particularly PRSA. It should be unethical to duck a reporter’s call even if “no comment” is all that can be said. Organizations can be urged to accept the dispassionate and even critical viewpoint that reporters provide and to practice “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” in dealing with them. No. 2 is that PR pros should work or at least be available 24/7, the hours that media work.

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